The Kuwaiti visual artist on collaborating with high-end brands and why she’s serious about plants
Language of expression
Breaking out of her shell wasn’t easy for Kuwaiti multidisciplinary visual artist Najd Al Taher. “Believe it or not, I’m a total introvert,” she shares. Her work offers her a channel to voice her opinion and she credits her brother for encouraging her to follow her path. “I was supposed to go to med school to become a heart surgeon!” Instead, she majored in graphic design at the American University of Kuwait, where she caught the attention of artist Amira Behbehani through a photography competition. Behbehani invited Al Taher to showcase her work at the UN-supported, non-profit organization Peace One Days art show. “It was the first time I created for the purpose of showing and my first public appearance as an artist,” Al Taher says. Titled Queens Never Die, the series of photographs touched on Syria’s uprising. Her subsequent solo shows have explored the culture of consumption, isolation, detachment, and self-reflection.
Recently, Al Taher launched Public Society, a visual studio offering creative direction, branding, photography, videography, and installations. “It started with the idea of focusing on Kuwait’s talents and opening doors for them to get involved in projects,” explains the 26-year-old artist. “I remember the time when I wanted work, and it was hard to find someone to invest in and support me.” On the heels of her two solo shows, Al Taher earned the recognition, confidence, and a string of commissions from high-profile brands. She nabbed a spot as one of Puma’s Suede Guerillas–its collective of young creatives from the Middle East–which led her to make a multidimensional window display and conceptualize the main installation for the brand’s Sole DXB 2018 pavilion. She was also tapped by Bulgari to execute its B.zero1 20-year anniversary campaign, comprising a short film and still imagery infused with her signature illustration techniques. “My aesthetic is so hip and contemporary. I was blown away when I found out that Bulgari wanted to work with a young spirit,” she comments.
Classic meets punk
“I’m androgynous and avant-garde, but I can be feminine at the same time,” considers Al Taher. “I love structured pieces. I’m all about the boxy shoulder pads, the cinched-in blazer, and razor-sharp, high-waisted, tailored pants.” Her roster of power suits by Saint Laurent, Public School, Christopher Kane, and Mugler is just the tip of the iceberg. Dive deeper into her wardrobe and find Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons designs. “My deconstructed floral blazer that’s stitched inside and extremely poufy skirt that’s made of hard leather and exaggerated three-dimensional florals that drapes to one side is a look I wouldn’t mind wearing to a wedding,” she says. “When I lived in London, I built up this punk rebel look – I refuse to let it go.” Her footwear includes chunky-soled Dr Martens, Saint Laurent combat boots with studs, chains, and embellished leather straps, and platform Rick Owens sandals with floor-sweeping threads.
“I’m partially blind, and I need to wear eye-glasses because I can’t stand contact lenses,” the artist says. She adds tinted prescription lenses to her designer frames, putting her own pastel spin on a sharp pair by Gentle Monster, while a wash of yellow tint on Gucci specs gives her complexion a warm glow. Other standouts include a pair of orange vintage Ray-Bans and a Nina Ricci design rendered in diamanté studs for a touch of sparkle. “They’ve become part of my persona,” she says of her collection, while habitually pushing her green-tinted Le Specs frames up the bridge of her nose.
Put your records on
Music plays a big part in Al Taher’s day. She picks up a matte Mini Martin acoustic guitar to offer a smooth rendition of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” “I keep one of my guitars in the studio for hard times,” she says with a playful smirk. Her fingers dance across the strings, each adorned with silver rings by Maison Martin Margiela. Gifted to play by ear without any formal musical training, Al Taher is also self-taught on the piano. “I can play anything, but I enjoy taking pop songs and turning them into my own. Acoustically, I like slowing them down and adding more depth. I only go electric when I’m playing John Mayer or Jimi Hendrix,” she says. “My brother and I grew up watching Michael Jackson and Madonna instead of cartoons. That was our source of entertainment.” As for her music library, Al Taher prefers vinyl. “I have a lot of records. Sade is always on. Sometimes I’ll spin some Björk, Lana Del Rey, Mariah the Scientist, or Blood Orange,” she says. “I cherish my limited-edition records.”
“I’m a proud plant mom,” Al Taher says. “Even when I gift, I gift plants.” She spent her childhood surrounded by flowers and getting her hands dirty in the garden. “Growing up, my aunt would take me with her to buy plants for my grandmother’s garden. We would plant together and that’s how I became familiar with gardening. It was our bond,” she recalls. Today, her studio space flourishes with iridescent specimens that range from a blossoming lipstick plant and potted bird’s-nest ferns to the climbing variety of heartleaf philodendrons. “This one is my baby,” she says, admiring a white bird of paradise plant. With its large, paddle-shaped leaves, sturdy stems, and tropical feel, it acts as a focal point amid the greenery of her urban jungle. “It’s been struggling to open, but I will never give up on it. I talk to it every day, and if the leaf edges start to brown, I cut them very gently.” She spends her weekends scouring plant nurseries. “Some of them hate me, because I’m a bargainer,” she says with a laugh.
Originally published in the February 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia